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John F. Nash Jr., mathematician who won Nobel, was focus of ‘A Beautiful Mind’

June 13, 1928 – May 23, 2015

John Forbes Nash Jr., the Princeton University mathematician and Nobel laureate whose towering intellect and descent into paranoid schizophrenia formed the basis of the Academy Award-winning movie “A Beautiful Mind,” has died. He was 86.

Nash and his wife, Alicia, were killed in an auto crash on the New Jersey Turnpike on Saturday afternoon, New Jersey State Police Sgt. Gregory Williams said Sunday.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded the 1994 Nobel Prize in economics to Nash, John Harsanyi of the University of California,Berkeley, and Reinhard Selten of the University of Bonn in Germany for their work in game theory, which seeks to understand how people, governments and companies cooperate and compete.

Nash was honored for his early insights, still widely used in economics, into how rivals shift or maintain strategies and allegiances. The Nash equilibrium describes the moment when all parties are pursuing their best-case scenario and wouldn’t change course even if a rival does. It has been widely applied to matters including military confrontations, industrial price wars and labor negotiations.

Nash’s work was of interest mainly to fellow mathematicians and economists until the release in 1998 of “A Beautiful Mind,” a biography by Sylvia Nasar stemming from her 1994 profile of Nash in the New York Times. Director Ron Howard turned the book into the 2001 film starring Russell Crowe as Nash and Jennifer Connelly as his wife. The movie won the Academy Award for best picture, with Howard and Connelly winning Oscars, as well.

Nash was born in the Appalachian coal-mining and railroad town of Bluefield, W.Va. He was the first of two children of John Nash, an electrical engineer, and his wife, Virginia, a former schoolteacher.

He won a George Westinghouse Scholarship to attend Carnegie Institute of Technology, now Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh. He shifted from chemical engineering to chemistry, then to mathematics. He graduated with bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

Late in his time at Carnegie, stimulated by an elective course in international economics, Nash began work on a paper offering his take on how two parties can reach accommodation while bargaining.

At Princeton, which he chose over Harvard for his doctoral studies beginning in 1948, he continued his work on game theory.

His Ph.D. thesis was the foundation for his Nobel Prize decades later. By extending game-theory analysis to situations that aren’t zero-sum games, he built upon the work of Princeton’s John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern, who had broken ground in the field with a 1944 book.

Nash taught at Princeton for a year after receiving his Ph.D. in 1950. After a brief stint at RAND Corp., he joined the faculty of Massachusetts Institute of Technology and was there until 1959. His work during that time included solving the so-called embedding problem in differential geometry and devising what became known as the Nash bargaining solution.

He and Alicia Larde, whom he met at MIT when she took his course in advanced calculus, married in 1957. It was early in 1959, when Alicia was pregnant with their son, John Charles Nash – Nash had another son, John David Stier, from a relationship before he married – that Nash began experiencing what he later termed his “mental disturbances.”

He resigned from the MIT faculty and spent 50 days at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass., the first of several involuntary commitments to psychiatric institutions.

Wandering through Europe, he “feared he was being spied on and hunted down and he tried to give up his United States citizenship,” Nasar wrote. Back home, he separated from his wife and spent time with his mother in Roanoke, Va.

Nash tried to resume his research during what he called his “interludes of, as it were, enforced rationality.”

His wife continued to support him following their divorce in 1963, and he lived with her in Princeton, N.J., most of the time.

Nash began to emerge from his schizophrenia in the 1980s, when he was well into his 50s, having lost many of his productive years to the disorder. He and his wife remarried in 2001.

– Bloomberg News